When Brands Take a Stand: Let Your Values Dictate Your Tone (aka No Punches Necessary)

By | July 1, 2019

CW Brand Take a StandThe concept of “Brands Take a Stand” is a popular discussion, with the data stacking up in favor of companies getting more involved in solving societal issues and challenges.  We know that consumers have greater confidence in companies than in government to solve such problems, and their expectation of companies to do so is increasing.  In MWWPR’s proprietary CorpSumerTM study we learned that CorpsSumers — the one in three (and growing) people who use values as a primary factor in purchase decisions – are so interested in brands advocating for positive change, they don’t even have to agree with your position.

And therein lies the rub. No doubt that in conference rooms across corporate America and around the world leaders are talking about the importance of purpose and using all kinds of buzzwords and jargon-ey phrases like “activating against our purpose” and “leveraging our values.” But they inevitably get paralyzed (or at least slowed down) by the fear of being overly controversial – of pleasing one segment at the risk of alienating another.

Here in the United States, fear of being the target of President Trump’s late-night tweets is certainly getting a big share of discussion in those conference rooms. As Democratic Presidential candidates get in on that action – pointing fingers at companies and entire industries for everything from paying their fair share of taxes to having too much control over an industry, it might seem easier to just lay low.

Except consumers won’t stand for it. They will view your inaction as a values statement when they decide to purchase your product. And they will view it as an even bigger values statement when they decide about their employer of choice.

CEO & Corporate Advocacy is just like any other kind of advocacy – it comes in all shapes and sizes.  Just like some consumers march on Washington, chanting in unison, others will mix it up on social media inviting debate among their personal networks and still, others will quietly call their Member of Congress. The lesson here is to let your culture and your values do the talking and dictate the tone. The good news is that your stakeholders are expecting you to take a stand, but they aren’t (yet) dictating how you should do that.

In some cases, like Patagonia telling the world that the President was stealing our land, taking a stand means throwing a punch. For others, taking a stand means reminding us of our common ground, as Levi’s did in their advocacy for all Americans to vote or improving worker conditions.  And form some brands, advocacy is demonstrated, like Nike’s most recent work around gender equity with this awesome video coinciding with the women’s world cup.

When it comes to taking a stand, whether as part of a CEO Advocacy Platform, an extension of company purpose or a rallying cry for employees, consider the why, what, when and how as a framework for your rules of engagement:

WHY: Identify why your values-based why – Yes, this also starts with why. Why are you choosing to take a stand on a particular issue, and why now? The answer should not exclusively be around differentiating yourself from competitors, driving growth or even protecting your business. It should be rooted in your values. For example, if one of your core values is integrity, taking a stand on any kind of social injustice is an authentic position.  When Starbucks got involved in the immigration debate, it (presumably) wasn’t because they needed to expand visa programs to hire enough baristas. They have a value around acting with courage and challenging the status quo.

WHAT: Define success – What is the end result you are trying to achieve by taking a stand. Again, it should not be to garner earned media attention. Are you hoping to drive a behavior change, create a movement or work to build societal consensus? Which stakeholders are most central to that change? Are you doing this for your customers specifically or for society at large? Can you fight this fight alone, or are you hoping to build a coalition?

WHEN: Does this problem have an expiration date? – If you are dedicated to the issue of voter turnout, it is more relevant to do so before election day than after.  Is there a deadline looming for some sort of change that needs to be enacted or reversed? Most positions that rise to the level of brands taking a stand have some level of urgency, but they don’t all have an expiration date – education reform, homelessness, and access to healthcare, for example, are chronic issues that still need to be solved.

HOW: Create a values-based prescription on “how” and pay careful attention to tone – This is the part that communications teams love – how will we share our point of view? How will we actually take a stand? We start to envision an exclusive media interview or high-profile op-ed, a content engine, creation of a coalition.  But before we do any of those things, it is important to consider both the tone and the intensity of our stance, viewed through the Why, what and when. Be sure that your tone is consistent with your values and brand voice; and that your approach is authentic.  Your stakeholders will always smell a fake.

But do take a stand. Please. Society is depending on us.

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